“This is only the beginning,” says the desert nomad Chani (Zendaya) near the end of Dune, the long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel from the French Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve. Given that this 155-minute-long epic covers roughly half of the story told in the book’s several-hundred pages and is explicitly framed at the beginning as Dune: Part One, this cryptic utterance, one of the few lines the character speaks, stands as a promise of a second installment to come. Or, depending on your tolerance for dour and deafening space operas, a threat. Whether Chani’s vision of a second chapter will come to pass depends on how Villeneuve’s gargantuan $165 million undertaking fares at the box office and on HBO Max this weekend.
Since its publication in 1965, Dune has become one of the top-selling science-fiction titles of all time. It’s also become a white whale—or in the story’s own cosmology, an elusive giant sandworm—for visionary directors. As explored in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the mystical Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky spent much of the 1970s trying to mount an impossibly vast production that was to star his own son in the lead role alongside a cast that would have included Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, Alain Delon, and Mick Jagger. David Lynch’s 1984 version starred, among others, Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, and Sting. The film was regarded at the time as an incomprehensible flop, though it has since attracted a cult following. Other directors approached to film Dune over the years have included David Lean (who ultimately turned the project down) and Ridley Scott (who worked on developing an adaptation for seven months, then, overwhelmed by the scope of the project, moved on to make Blade Runner instead).
Herbert’s Dune series—he followed the initial novel with five more—combined spiritual, ecological, and anti-colonialist themes into a dense weave of interlocking stories about two families, the Harkonnens and the Atreideses, fighting it out for control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only known source of a prized substance called “spice” (or, in the books, “mélange”). This substance is both necessary to fuel interstellar travel and functions as a kind of performance-enhancing drug; thanks to their exposure to the spice, Arrakis’ desert-dwelling Fremen people have eerie bright-blue eyes, exceptional fighting ability, and, it is implied, psychic powers.
They aren’t the only ones. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the teenage scion of the powerful Atreides clan, is taking lessons from his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a sort of secret priesthood made up of women with highly developed supernatural skills; for example, they can compel even their enemies to do their bidding using a creepy digitally augmented voice. (Dune’s immersive sound design, by Mark Mangini, is one of its most unusual elements. If you see this movie in a theater, you might want to bring earplugs to protect yourself against the ambient roar.)
Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been assigned by the emperor to lead the forces colonizing Arrakis. It’s a powerful post but also a dangerous one, given that the Harkonnen family, who has controlled the planet for 80 years, is not thrilled to give it up. The head of the Harkonnens is the formidably repulsive Baron (a barely recognizable Stellan Skarsgård), a Jabba the Hutt–like figure who plots his schemes from a bathtub bubbling with black oil and, when feeling especially evil, levitates into the air to float above his interlocutors like a menacing Goodyear blimp.
I should note that nearly all the plot details above were reconstructed from research conducted after seeing Dune. The experience of sitting through the movie itself is more about watching unimaginably huge rusted metal blobs—in the year 10191, spacecrafts come exclusively in organic shapes—land very, very slowly atop endless expanses of sparkling sand. There are also many scenes of military pageantry, with soldiers lined up in precise geometric formations and seen from on high in images that recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda spectacles. The social order of the Dune universe exists somewhere between fascism and feudalism; planets are fiefdoms controlled by individual families, and skill in battle, embodied by Jason Momoa as the affable warrior Duncan Idaho, is among the most highly prized values. Yet this society is also covertly matriarchal, with the Bene Gesserit pulling spiritual strings from behind the scenes.
Dune’s production design, created by Patrice Vermette, is its true star. Against the backdrop of all this awe-inspiring vastness, there is something faintly comical about the slight-framed, baby-faced Chalamet striding through the sand in a long black coat like that one goth kid you knew in high school. Herbert’s book series questioned the “chosen one” ethos of conventional science fiction, but Villeneuve’s adaptation, at least so far, appears to endorse the notion that this skinny white boy was born to rule the universe. Since the Fremen he is apparently fated to lead are all darker-skinned and vaguely coded as Middle Eastern, this makes for an uncomfortable racial dynamic, which is only exacerbated by the fact that few of the actors playing Fremen hail from that part of the world—besides Zendaya, there is Javier Bardem in a barely there role as an honorable Fremen leader.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster stands out, in a role gender-swapped from the book, as a pragmatically minded ecologist who advises the newly arrived colonizers on the nature and culture of the planet Arrakis. And Momoa and Josh Brolin, as soldiers with a long-standing loyalty to the Atreides family, bring gruff warmth and, in Momoa’s case, a welcome dash of humor to their roles. Isaac and Ferguson, as the savior-to-be’s parents, aren’t given a lot to do other than make noble sacrifices for the sake of their son. Chalamet doesn’t really belong in the role of the tormented rebel leader (even though he brings tremendous panache to a similar role in a current release, playing a charismatic student activist in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch). Still, in a movie created on this grand a scale, individual performances and characters are subsumed to the world-building machinery that surrounds them, and on that score, Dune delivers.
Villeneuve’s craft team has collaborated on creating a spectacle that leaves the viewer in awe. The aircraft that carries our heroes over the dunes resembles a hovering metal dragonfly. The spice-guarding sandworms, as long as a city block and revealed to the viewer only after nearly an hour of suspenseful teasing, are marvels of monster design; I could have done with 20 percent more sandworm time, and would return for a sequel just to see one ridden into battle by a triumphant Timmy. Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent score have a stately grandeur that, after the first hour of “whoa, dude” trippiness, starts to verge on the ponderous. Seen on an IMAX screen, Dune is unquestionably hypnotic—so much so that I nodded off twice (each time for less than a minute, so I doubt I missed too much by way of plot). This film is a curiously paradoxical achievement: a visual and aural marvel that is also a crashing bore.